GOA-Backed Case Enjoys Supreme Court Victory

GOA-Backed Case Enjoys Supreme Court Victory

On March 21, 2017, the Supreme Court decided Manuel v. Joliet, a case in which Gun Owners of America — and its legal arm, Gun Owners Foundation — came to the defense of a man who had been arrested and detained for 48 days based on false charges. 

The Supreme Court, in a 6-2 opinion by Justice Kagan, held that the Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable seizures (arrests), not just during the pretrial phase, but also after an indictment and arraignment before a judge — and thus provides a basis for a claim for malicious prosecution against the wrongdoing government officials for the entire period. 

Gun Owners of America filed an amicus brief on May 9, 2016, and can be viewed here.

[Gun owners realize that protecting the Fourth Amendment rights of law-abiding Americans will ultimately protect the rights of gun owners to be free from “unreasonable searches and seizures.”  Gun owners stand to be among the first to be targeted by government if the Fourth Amendment continues to be eroded.  And this is why GOA is working to explain to courts that the Fourth Amendment protects each American’s property interests, including Americans’ property interest in their own body and firearms.]

In delivering the opinion of the Court, Justice Kagan explained that the Fourth Amendment applies during the entire detention, up until trial (at which point the Due Process Clause protections apply).  “By their respective terms … Manuel’s claim fits the Fourth Amendment, and the Fourth Amendment fits Manuel’s claim, as hand in glove.”  (p. 6.)

GOA’s brief had argued that Justice Ginsburg’s concurring opinion in Albright v. Oliver demonstrated that a person is “seized” in the Fourth Amendment sense until trial.  In her majority opinion in Manuel, Justice Kagan cited Albright to show that pretrial detention can violate the Fourth Amendment even after the start of legal process in a criminal case.  If there is an absence of probable cause, even after legal process has started, then there is a Fourth Amendment violation.

The case stemmed from a harrowing incident in March 2011.  Elijah Manuel was riding in a car with his brother when the police pulled them over – allegedly for failure to signal a turn.  

Using racial epithets as they dragged the brothers from the car, the officers took Manuel to the ground, beat and kicked him, and then ripped apart the car, searching for anything illegal but nothing in particular.  There is evidence that the police had previously targeted Manuel and his brother for harassment. 

The police did manage to find a bottle of vitamins in Manuel’s pocket, which a field test demonstrated were not illegal drugs.  The police covered up the results of that test and falsely claimed that the pills were ecstasy.  

After Manuel was arrested and jailed for possession of drugs, a state police lab once again confirmed that the pills were not ecstasy.  The police, however, did not provide this report to the prosecutor, who brought the case before a Grand Jury and, based on the false testimony of the officers, obtained an indictment against Manuel.

The charges against Manuel were finally dropped by the prosecutor after he uncovered the police lab report and realized that the charges were utterly baseless – but by then, Manuel had been in jail for 48 days.  

In addition to the emotional distress of having been wrongly incarcerated for such a lengthy period, Manuel alleged that the City of Joliet and its police officers harmed his reputation, inflicted out-of-pocket financial losses, forced him to drop out of school, and deprived him of employment opportunities.

In bringing suit, Manuel invoked the Fourth Amendment as a basis for his malicious prosecution claim.  The Fourth Amendment guarantee against unreasonable searches and seizures is predicated on the right of the people to be secure in their “persons, houses, papers, and effects.”

Justice Alito wrote a lengthy dissent, joined by Justice Thomas.  Alito reads the word “seizure” in the Fourth Amendment very narrowly.  He believes that a seizure means the initial “taking possession,” and should not be understood as applying to any lengthy detention or confinement.  He agrees that the Fourth Amendment continues after an arrest warrant and an initial appearance, but he provides no guidance for how far is too far.

Based on this decision, the financial cost imposed on localities that violate Fourth Amendment rights has increased substantially — and thus provides a powerful disincentive to conduct searches and seizures in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

Jeremiah Morgan practices constitutional law and is one of attorneys representing Gun Owners Foundation.  Rob Olson, another GOF attorney, contributed to this report, as well.